A lot of times we expect to find heroes in the middle of great historic events. We usually don’t expect to find them in our hometown. And we don’t expect them to be teenagers. But last week, I was around some teenagers who showed class, grace and selflessness. Those are heroic in my book. These teen heroes inspired me.
Many of you know that I am a coach for my son’s middle school robotics team, despite the fact that I know absolutely NOTHING about robotics. We are in our inaugural season of using FIRST robotics. And WE. LOVE. IT. It not only teaches kids mechanical engineering, computer programming, and teamwork, but it also focuses on teaching Gracious Professionalism and Cooperative Competition (or as they have termed it, “Coopertition”.) This all makes for a very helpful and collaborative culture. Essentially, you are rewarded when you help another team.
This sounds all fine and dandy…but when I saw it in action with our high school team, it took my breath away.
How it all started
As I mentioned before, our team is new. Some of the kids and coaches have a little bit of experience, but it is all very new to most of us. The way FIRST is structured at the high school level, is that each team has three tournaments to qualify for the next tier of competition.
Our team had worked so very, very hard. But competition day came, and we were having problems. Sometimes our robot worked and sometimes it didn’t. Was it a programming issue? A loose wire? Was everything mechanically sound? Sometimes we didn’t know. Tempers started to flare as programmers and engineers started to blame each other. Various teams (including our mentor team- the Jaegers from Heber, Arizona) came and helped, but things were still glitchy.
At the end of the competition, we ranked 8th of 14. We started the day knowing that this was going to be a learning opportunity, that we probably wouldn’t qualify, that we had two additional tournaments coming up… but we were still disappointed. We started packing up our things as the championship rounds began.
Typically in the championship rounds, the four top seeded teams each pick a partner to join them in the competition and then elimination rounds begin. Our friends the Jaegers are an amazing team with an amazing story. Despite some incredibly difficult circumstances, they are consistently one of the top teams in the world. They are well known and well respected. Their help has been invaluable to us. At this tournament, they ended up being the #2 team. We were very happy for them and were getting ready to cheer loudly.
We didn’t expect this to happen
When the top seeded team asked the Jaegers to be their teammates, no one was surprised. It was a good, strategic match for both of them. But what happened next, DID surprise everyone–the Jaegers declined. (What?! Why?)
To give some context, this rarely happens. It doesn’t make any sense. But the #1 team shrugged it off and proceeded to ask a different team, who gladly accepted.
Then it was the Jaeger’s turn to pick a partner and they chose . . . us! (What?! Why?)
Everyone at the tournament was stunned. Seasoned coaches and judges were speechless. Why on earth would this team which was ranked 11th in the world pick a bunch of rookies? Didn’t they know that we could ruin their chances to advance? That our robot still wasn’t in top working order? Didn’t they know they were being strategically stupid?
Yes, yes and yes. And they still deliberately chose us.
I’m not going to lie, several of us teared up. We didn’t know what to say. We were also afraid. Afraid we would ruin their chances to advance. Afraid we would let them down. We rushed back to the pit area to work as hard as we could to get things fixed.
When the chaos quieted, our head coach asked their head coach, “Why?”
“Some of the other teams just skated by. You guys have worked hard, and there are more important things than winning, anyway.”
If that response sounds too good to be true, it’s not. That is the way this team consistently works. Earlier in the season, they gave us over $150 in motors when they realized we had some sub-par ones. And that is only one of many examples of their generosity.
After the teams were picked, we had some time to work. Thanks to the Jaegers and a coach from another team, we were able to get the bugs worked out and our robot started working again! When the elimination rounds began, we were able to hold our heads up because we scored several points. At the end of the day, our teams together took first place. (Though the Jaegers could have won it single-handedly.) Stunningly, because of this winning partnership, our team qualified to advance to the next tier of competition. The Jaegers were our heroes.
I asked myself if I had been in their situation, would I have made the same decision? I had to admit I wouldn’t have. Though I found out later that there were other ways for the Jaegers to qualify, their willingness to sacrifice that day was life-changing for the members of our team.
Later, I asked one of the boys on the team why they decided to partner with us. “Well, if we advance, it wouldn’t be any fun without you. You guys are our friends. We want to take you with us.”
The Jaegers gave us pure grace. An unearned gift that we couldn’t pay back. Something that we could not do for ourselves. It inspired us, motivated us, and made us love them more. It wasn’t an entitlement–it made us want to work harder so we wouldn’t let them down. The culture that the coaches and kids have created on their team, and the example they are to the rest of us, is truly hero-worthy.